Chianti, Montepulciano, and Montalcino—the main wine regions in the Province of Siena—have strong traditions that exercise a gravitational pull on their wine styles. The commitment to earthy Sangiovese, the delicate style of aged Brunello, the rustic Nobile di Montepulciano, the use of large ageing vessels of ancient lineage, 900 liter tonneau and the larger botti, all harken back to an old world style of winemaking that survives despite modern technology and viticulture.
As we head west toward the Tyrrhenian Sea we leave behind those centuries of tradition for the regions of Italy that fomented the Italian wine revolution in the 1970’s—Maremma and Bolgheri—where innovation matters more than tradition. Here Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot receive equal billing with Sangiovese, Syrah edges toward wide acceptance, and the use of French oak barrique to age the wine aims at a more flamboyant “international style” of winemaking. Does the world need more Cabernet Sauvignon you might ask? The answer appears to be “yes” given recent sales figures that show continued dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon in the fine wine category. Does the world need more oak induced chocolate, coffee and vanilla flavors? Well, again, follow the money.
Speaking of money if you find these wines a bit too expensive get used to it. Especially in Bolgheri when I asked at Michele Satta if they planned to expand production our guide sadly shook his head and said there is no more good vineyard land available at any price. As demand for these wines continues to grow higher prices will inevitably follow.
The oft-told Super Tuscan story is fascinating. Highly successful winemakers in the 1960’s and 1970’s grew tired of the restrictions made necessary if you wanted to call your wine Chianti or Nobile di Montepulciano. An ocean of inferior wine was made under these labels in part because the rules allowed only approved grapes that were over cropped to meet increasing demand. Traditional winemaking techniques and aging regimes were mandated by law so there was little room for innovation.
Wine producers concerned with quality–Mario Incisa della Rocchetta who made the famed Sassicaia and the Antinori family were the pioneers– tossed caution to the winds using international grape varieties and whatever winemaking techniques they thought would improve quality. It was a hard sell at first because they had to label their wines as generic table wines since they violated regulatory rules. But the quality of the wines and reputations of the producers prevailed, and today these are among the most admired wines in Italy having acquired the unofficial name “super Tuscans”. DOC rules have since been amended to allow regional designations of these wines.
This willingness to innovate and defy tradition continues in these regions. We visited two wineries on the cutting of edge of even more progressive winemaking. The first stop was Rocca di Frassinello winery in the region of Maremma, owned by a consortium that includes the owners of Bordeaux premier crus Lafite Rothschild. Located in the middle of 3,000-year-old Etruscan ruins, and designed by famed architect Renzo Piano, this is a a spectacular gravity flow winery with a mobile crush pad on the roof deck that drops the sorted grapes though chutes to the next level below for fermentation, and then though a series of tubes to the level below that to their unique concrete barrel room in the shape of an amphitheater. The concrete maintains temperature and humidity and the architecture creates an awe-inspiring cathedral-like atmosphere.
Their visitor center includes exhibits of Etruscan artifacts found when excavating for the building and features a tasting of what Etruscan wine might have been like. The Ancient Etruscans doctored their wine with flowers, pepper, cheese, or water. Thus the winery serves samples of their wine gently steeped in these ingredients. I suppose this was interesting although the base wine was not in need of such enhancements and likely bore little resemblance to the wines made 3000 years ago.
Their wines were impressive especially as value wines. A minerally Vermentino and tasty Rosato were mere prelude to the two reds which were the stars of the show. The Poggio alla Guardia Vigne Alte, a blend of 62% Sangiovese with the balance of Cab, Merlot and Syrah was earthy but fresh, with a fruity midpalate, wonderful acidity and a very interesting active finish. It was aged for 12 months in concrete. The Le Sughere di Frassinello has appeared in the Wine Spectator’s Top 100. 50% Sangiovese, and equal portions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, this is a classic Super Tuscan aged for 12 months in 50% new French barrique. Rich with black cherry and coffee and a mineral seam to launch the long finish, this is available in the states for under $20 and is an excellent value.
After Rocca di Frassinello we head to the coast to the Bolgheri region. This is where some of the finest triple-digit price tag wines in all of Italy come from and for good reason. The soil mix of limestone, clay, and marl is ideal for wine grapes, as is the warm days to ripen grapes, sea breezes to ventilate vineyards and stave off disease, and cool nights to maintain acidity in the grapes. Our stop is at one of Bolgheri’s wine pioneers, Michele Satta, who was kind enough to drop in and explain the history of the winery and his approach to winemaking. (Michele’s first vintage was 1983; the Bolgheri DOC was established in 1984.) Satta worked for Sassiccaia before deciding to plant his own vineyard, one of the first vineyards in Bolgheri. Today the vines are farmed bio-dynamically and produce about 13000 cases per year.
Biodynamic farming is a type of farming developed in the early 20th Century and is increasingly popular among viticulturists because it focuses on maintaining a natural equilibrium in the vineyard without the use of chemical sprays and pesticides. Beans and mustard are planted in the vineyard rows to introduce nitrogen into the soil. Special compost preparations condition the soils and various herbal teas are used to control pests. More controversially, activities in the vineyard are regulated by a calendar that specifies when pruning, harvesting and watering should take place.
Does biodyanamics shape the taste of the wine? That is a subject of great debate I won’t try to adjudicate here. But these wines were impressive. The Costa di Giulia Vermentino/Sauvignon Blanc blend was the best white wine we’ve had on the tour with great intensity and a textured mouth feel. The Bolgheri Rosso, a kitchen sink blend of several grapes, had a beautiful nose of intense plum, mocha and coffee with a soft midpalate and firm tannins—at $17 dollars an outstanding value. The Piastraia Superiore, a Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese blend, was rich and smooth, very elegant—a perfect match with the pappa al pomodoro. And finally, the dessert wine, Govin Re, a Viognier late harvest of very focused peach and refreshing acidity, brought the tasting to a close. The Cabernet and Merlot were aged in new French oak, the Sangiovese and Syrah in mostly used oak.
This late afternoon lunch and tasting was the end of the winery visits; we finish the tour with a day of seafood and scenery in the Cinque Terre. We settled in for a two hour drive up the coast passing by Pisa where we caught a glimpse of the leaning tower from the freeway and the famous Cararra marble quarries which looked like early June snow in the mountains. From La Spezia, the beginning of the Italian Riviera, it was 30 minutes of spectacular vistas overlooking cliffs to the ocean below before arriving in the village of Porto Venere, the first of the Cinque Terre villages. This view from our hotel room was charming. But these anchovies are by themselves worth a trip to Italy.